Innovation, innovation, innovation: Matthias Meier and the excitement of the unknown
Matthias Meier is pursuing ambitious goals. Based on his own, sophisticated organ on a chip system, the new team leader at Helmholtz Pioneer Campus (HPC) is aiming to revolutionise personalised medicine in the obesity and diabetes fields in five years time.
If you ask Dr. Matthias Meier what he and his research team expect from the HPC, he replies with a bold image: “We will harness the most advanced technology to overcome engrained scientific boundaries and shape the medicine of the future!” A glance at his CV makes it clear just what he means by that. Meier studied biochemistry, specialising in structural biology, then took a PhD in biophysics, before turning his attention to biological engineering at Stanford University. This interdisciplinary background has made him an expert in microfluidics, which deals with the control of fluids in very tightly constrained spaces. Potential applications include precise modelling of the chemical environment of physiological systems. Meier and his colleagues are working on tiny chips containing more than 100 cell culture chambers supplied by wafer thin fluid channels, similar to the way the cells of our bodies are supplied by capillary networks. How he has ended up in this field is more a matter of luck than judgement. Matthias Meier describes his career path as follows: “My specific interests have evolved partly because of the work I’ve been involved in, but also due to the interesting developments holding out the promise of new possibilities.” He has been inspired by various colleagues along the way. “I find researchers who break new ground, performing really pioneering work, truly inspirational.”
In Silicon Valley, Meier was particularly impressed by his mentor Prof. Dr. Stephen Quake. Quake is viewed worldwide as a pioneer in microfluidics and his enthusiasm for this universally applicable technology proved infectious. Meier has taken everything he has learned and proceeded to push the envelope, starting from two-dimensional cell cultures and moving on to three-dimensional arrangements resembling mini-organs in their complexity.
At HPC, Meier is planning to take the next conceptual step, aiming to cultivate three-dimensional adipose and pancreatic tissue on microchips in order to understand how stem cells develop into tissue-specific cell types.
Specifically, “Thanks to microfluidics, we are now in a position to simulate typical physiological oscillations in the laboratory – changes in blood glucose levels over the course of the day, for example,” explains Meier. “From stem cells to organs, we are able to use clearly defined conditions and, for the first time, measure the quantity of all of the molecules involved in this process and characterise previously undescribed molecules.” To help elucidate the molecular mechanisms of stem cell development, Meier’s group has specialised in developing quantitative protein detection methods. The focus is on differentiation signals at the level of the single cell in a tissue context. Detection methods are automated on the chips. “This gives us an unparalleled insight into our own physiology, as we are able to cultivate human tissue on our chips with no major ethical concerns.” Consequently, organs on a chip allow complete control, complete analyses and unprecedented systems modulations. They might in the future even replace some standard animal testings, as they more closely resemble real-life physiology and thereby could even reduce research costs. Therefore, Meier’s long-term goal is personalised cell therapy for patients with obesity or diabetes.
For Matthias Meier, long-term here means within the next five years. “After five years, you need to start a new project,” he says. He believes that, if you are to dedicate yourself to new challenges with the same intensity, after five years it’s time to find new inspirations. Which is why he views his 5-year contract at HPC as good motivation, “I wouldn't want a routine job.” He enjoys the adrenaline of making new discoveries and of rapidly transforming his discoveries into something of value to society, “Making a genuine contribution to medical progress means more to me than adding a marginal and solely academic contribution.”
The success of his ambitions is demonstrated by numerous awards and international grants. For Meier, these acknowledgements are a big motivation to develop actual market-ready medical products.
Inspired by the pioneering spirit of Silicon Valley, he plans to make his dreams come true at HPC – with all the risks that cutting-edge research involves. Meier trusts in his scientific instincts, as well as his capacity to think from a commercial perspective. The HPC concept offers him excellent scientific infrastructure and generous financial support. He highlights having the opportunity to collaborate with scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München as one of the key elements for success, “Without Helmholtz Zentrum München as its foundation, the HPC simply wouldn’t work. It’s only through close collaboration with the established institutes at Helmholtz Zentrum München and their extensive local and international networks that we are able to produce top quality, leading edge research at HPC.”